A paradigm is alternately described as “a typical example or pattern of something,” “a model,” “a worldview underlying the theories and methodology of a particular scientific subject,” and “a table of all the inflected forms of a particular verb, noun, or adjective, serving as a model for other words of the same conjugation or declension.”
This is a complex set of definitions. As humans, we tend to simplify, and so most of us use the word paradigm to mean something like “total outlook.” Most frequently, I’ve heard the word used in the phrase “paradigm shift,” by which we mean that the entire way we view the world has been transformed. When we experience a paradigm shift, everything upon which we build our impressions and base our decisions has changed.
But I think it’s important to remember that paradigms are about more than perspective. As we can see from the definitions above, paradigm is largely a technical word referring to models: typical examples, patterns, tables of verbs. A paradigm is not just an outlook; it’s a foundation.
The interesting thing about perspectives and foundations—the two simple manifestations of paradigms—is that when one changes, the other will inevitably follow. It’s a basic chicken-egg problem. If, for example, you wake up one day to realize that for some time now you’ve been assuming that people around you have bad intentions, but you know that there was a time when you assumed otherwise, what happened? Did your outlook change, or did your foundation shift underneath your feet? You can’t really be sure which of the two happened first, but you know that both happened eventually.
Whether a set of new models causes you to see the world differently or seeing the world differently draws you to new models, a paradigm shift may be a long and subtle process or a sudden redefinition of your world that leaves you almost breathless.
Have you ever experienced a paradigm shift?
I think I’ve experienced two: one very slowly over the past five years, and one very quickly over the past four weeks.
The first paradigm shift was, simply put, a bad one. It’s difficult to talk about, actually, because looking back on it now makes me somewhat ashamed. Growing up in a loving family and a truth-centered church, I was always proud of who I was and the choices I made, and never thought that I was headed for anything special. Then Harvard called. I moved out East, where everyone assumed I would suffer from new and different pressures, and I stubbornly insisted that all was well.
Looking back now, I can see that over the past five years, huge shifts in my models and perspectives took place—and not for the better. The humility I had learned at home was replaced by pride. (Harvard never missed an opportunity to remind me that I was part of the academic élite.) The contentment I had always enjoyed was replaced by itching ambition. Instead of thinking of how best to serve my faith and my family, I thought about a big office, a second house, titles, the next step up. Above all, the simple confidence that I felt in my own abilities gave way to a rising fear that I would not be good enough. This fear manifested itself in a ridiculously overworked undergraduate career, after which I did graduate at the top of my class but was entirely burned out from the effort. This fear also manifested itself in an insane devotion to women for whom I told myself I was not good enough and who fully manipulated this fear in a way that left me very bruised in the end.
After having clear models for all of childhood—my parents and grandparents, my teachers, The Teacher—I woke up one day to realize that suddenly I no longer knew who my models were.
They say that a paradigm shift is like having the rug pulled out from under you, but in this case it was like the rug was slowly unraveling, bit by bit, until one day I looked down and realized that I was hanging by a thread.
I don’t normally incorporate a whole song into what I write, but there are some lyrics by Mary Chapin Carpenter that so perfectly capture my meaning that I have to include them here. In Stones in the Road, she sings of waking up one day as an adult and wondering what happened to all those simple truths we learned in childhood. The paradigm shift is so subtle that few of us even see it coming:
When we were young, we pledged allegiance every morning of our lives
The classroom rang with children’s voices under teacher’s watchful eye
We learned about the world around us at our desks and at dinnertime
Reminded of the starving children, we cleaned our plates with guilty minds
And the stones in the road shone like diamonds in the dust
And then a voice called to us to make our way back home
When I was ten, my father held me on his shoulders above the crowd
To see a train draped in mourning pass slowly through our town
His widow kneeled with all their children at the sacred burial ground
And the TV glowed that long hot summer with all the cities burning down
And the stones in the road flew out beneath our bicycle tires
Worlds removed from all those fires as we raced each other home
And now we drink our coffee on the run, we climb that ladder rung by rung
We are the daughters and the sons, and here’s the line that’s missing:
The starving children have been replaced by souls out on the street
We give a dollar when we pass, and hope our eyes don’t meet
We pencil in, we cancel out, we crave the corner suite
We kiss your ass, we make you hold, we doctor the receipt
And the stones in the road fly out from beneath our wheels
Another day, another deal, before we get back home
And the stones in the road leave a mark from whence they came
A thousand points of light or shame, baby, I don’t know…
For the past five years, I have been moving too fast. The stones have been flying out from beneath my wheels as I have been racing towards I know not what, but almost certainly heading for a collision. I forgot who I was, and what I thought to be the light was in fact only a source of shame.
Thankfully (and only God knows how truly thankful I am), recent events have worked to put me back on a firm foundation—and not just any foundation, but the very one that I almost lost. I’ve been thinking a lot about childhood lately, and I think that a big part of the reason for this is that I’m rapidly returning to the models and perspective—the paradigm—of that time.
It took a real wake-up call for me to realize that I should not walk in the direction of what seemed to be the light. In a matter of days, I came to see that I had in fact been walking away from the light the entire time. All of the bad decisions, all of the lonely moments, all of the fear and self-doubt and frustration and resentment and bitterness… all were because my foundation had slowly been shifting under my feet, and my perspectives had been moving along with it. I needed something to snap me back to reality. I needed someone to snap me back to reality.
And someone did.
I’ve tried to avoid getting too personal in what I write here, because I want this blog to be about the world, not about me. But sometimes—and especially now—the only way I can relate to or explain the world is through personal experience. And at this moment I have to say that I’m in love and I don’t care who knows it. I thought I had been several times before, but this is different, and the reason that this is different is because for the first time, I’ve found someone who has devoted herself to finding me—the real me, the one buried by years of nastiness and cloaked in a bad paradigm. With a few words, she is able to scrape away the false impressions and mistaken aspirations that have crept over me in recent years, and heal the wounded heart underneath.
She reminds me of who I am, not what I’ve done. She reminds me of the things that matter, not the distractions that don’t. She turns my eyes away from the ground—heavenward, and to Someone stronger than myself. She shows me who I am—who I always have been.
And for the first time, I find myself wondering whether I deserve someone not because of what I think of myself, but because I didn’t know it was possible for such blessings to exist in human form.
I have a new perspective, and it’s the old one. I have a new model, and it’s the one I had before. Without either of these, I was adrift…
And then a voice called to us to make our way back home.